You Don’t Own Me is a popular song written by John Madara and David White and recorded by Lesley Gore in May 1963, when Lesley Gore was 17-years-old. Gore:
“There’s nothing more wonderful than standing on stage and shaking your finger and singing ‘Don’t tell me what to do’.”
Oh, my. How many times in my life have I been forced to utter: ‘‘I’m Not Just One Of Your Many Toys’‘?
The song reached Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed at Number Two for three consecutive weeks, unable to on The Beatles‘ I Want To Hold Your Hand.
In those swingin’ 1960s, Pop Music had several strong, talented female singers, but Gore was the one with songs where the lyrics matched-up with a new kind of female independent spirit. Her string of fervent, defiant teen anthems started with It’s My Party, next came Judy’s Turn To Cry and finished with You Don’t Own Me, which continues on in the 21st century as a feminist statement.
Gore was born into a middle-class Jewish family in NYC. As a kid, she sang all the hottest hits in front of her bedroom mirror: Gore:
”I slicked my hair back in a credible Elvis imitation.”
When she was just 16-years-old, a tape of her singing found its way to composer/producer Quincy Jones at Mercury Records. He immediately recognized her as a big talent and he personally produced her brash tale of young love forsaken, It’s My Party, written on spec by Beverly Ross and Edna Lewis, with its chorus aimed at angsty teenagers:
”You would cry too, if it happened to you.”
After the recording session, Gore was told not to be disappointed if it was never released, but the record was released the very next week. Gore didn’t know it until she heard it for the first time while driving to school. Within a month it was the number one hit in the USA, selling more than a million copies.
You Don’t Own Me is an empowerment anthem recorded when women in Pop Music were supposed to be submissive and adoring, like in hit songs exemplified by The Chiffon’s He’s So Fine.
You Don’t Own Me was released the same year as Betty Friedan‘s seminal manifesto The Feminine Mystique. Gore’s song made way for anthems by other respect-demanding females like Aretha Franklin, Loretta Lynn and Beyoncé. Nancy Sinatra‘s These Boots Are Made For Walking and Gloria Gaynor‘s I Will Survive were possible because of Gore.
You Don’t Own Me is Gore’s most assertive song. It’s My Party is also a feminist anthem in a way. It’s a memorable manifestation of teen heartbreak, and while it is weepy, at least they were Gore’s tears, and she owned them. It was her party, and she’d cry if she wanted to. It was a brand new thing for a teen tune to be about a female’s desire for establishing her own autonomy.
You Don’t Own Me was later covered by Dusty Springfield and Amy Winehouse. It figures prominently in the film The First Wives Club (1996), where it is sung by Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler.
You Don’t Own Me may have been written by the male songwriters, but its sentiments were a perfect fit with Gore’s rather mature view of life and the music business. Despite her considerable success, Gore understood that the record company only thought about record sales generated by guys. Gore:
”They just thought it was easier to sell males. It really got to me after a while.”
During her teenage pop star time, Gore combined her recording career with her studies, graduating from high school in 1964 and enrolling at Sarah Lawrence College, all while racking up impressive record sales. During school breaks, she managed to film two movies aimed at teens and she made her television debut playing Catwoman’s assistant, Pussycat, on the popular, campy Batman (1966-68) series.
In the late 1960s, she formed a songwriting partnership with her brother, Michael Gore. Their song Out Here On My Own was used in the film Fame (1980). It was nominated for an Academy Award. Seeking creative control, Gore left her original label Mercury in 1969, because they couldn’t own her. She went to the hipper A&M Records, where she was reunited with Jones as her producer.
She appeared in John Waters‘ film Hairspray (1988), singing, of course, You Don’t Own Me.
In 2004, she was one of the hosts of In The Life, a PBS series devoted to LGBTQ issues. It was a sort of sly way of coming out of the closet for Gore. She subsequently said that her gayness had been evident to her family, friends and colleagues in the music biz for decades, if not by her fans.
In 2012, Gore adapted You Don’t Own Me for a feminist campaign aimed at persuading women to vote in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. That version featured Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Natasha Lyonne, Tracee Ellis Ross, Joan Jett and Gore.
Gore appears as a thinly disguised character, played brilliantly by Bridgett Fonda, in one of my favorite films, Grace Of My Heart (1996), about the music industry and life in The Brill Building. She co-wrote a wonderful song, My Secret Love, for the movie. The film deals with the struggles with her sexuality, but in real life Gore didn’t have quite that much struggle.
And I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please
Gore was something of an anomaly in the Pop Music world of her time, a solo female artist in an age of girl-groups. She has had 11 tunes in the Top Ten. But, she was just a kid when she started and Gore grew disenchanted with the challenges of being a woman in a man’s industry. Just think of what she could have done in our era of strong female musicians in control of their own material like Lady Gaga or Adele.
Gore took her final bow in 2015, taken by that damn cancer. She was just 69-years-old. She left behind an unfinished memoir, the hopes of a Broadway musical based on her life, and her partner of 36 years, jewelry designer Lois Sasson.
One of her songs has been a personal anthem for me, sung with conviction and tears many a time when I am all alone in my house. I love her sound. I was crazy for her music in the 1960s and I am crazy for it now. Today is her 72nd birthday!